A hydrogen radio frequency discharge, the first element inside a hydrogen maser.
A maser is a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission. Historically, “maser” derives from the original, upper-case acronym MASER, which stands for “Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. The lower-case usage arose from technological development having rendered the original denotation imprecise, because contemporary masers emit EM waves (microwave and radio frequencies) across a broader band of the electromagnetic spectrum; thus, the physicist Charles H. Townes’s suggested usage of “molecular” replacing “microwave”, for contemporary linguistic accuracy.In 1957, when the optical coherent oscillator was first developed, it was denominated optical maser, but usually called laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), the acronym Gordon Gould established in 1957.
Today, the most important type of maser is the hydrogen maser which is currently used as an atomic frequency standard. Together with other types of atomic clocks, they constitute the “Temps Atomique International” or TAI. This is the international time scale, which is coordinated by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, or BIPM.
It was Norman Ramsey and his colleagues who first realized this device. Today’s masers are identical to the original design. The maser oscillation relies on stimulated emission between two hyperfine levels of atomic hydrogen. Here is a brief description of how it works:
- First, a beam of atomic hydrogen is produced. This is done by submitting the gas at low pressure to an RF discharge (see the picture on this page).
- The next step is “state selection"—in order to get some stimulated emission, it is necessary to create a population inversion of the atoms. This is done in a way that is very similar to the famous Stern-Gerlach experiment. After passing through an aperture and a magnetic field, many of the atoms in the beam are left in the upper energy level of the lasing transition. From this state, the atoms can decay to the lower state and emit some microwave radiation.
- A high quality factor microwave cavity confines the microwaves and reinjects them repeatedly into the atom beam. The stimulated emission amplifies the microwaves on each pass through the beam. This combination of amplification and feedback is what defines all oscillators. The resonant frequency of the microwave cavity is exactly tuned to the hyperfine structure of hydrogen: 1420 405 751.768 Hz.
- A small fraction of the signal in the microwave cavity is coupled into a coaxial cable and then sent to a coherent receiver.
- The microwave signal coming out of the maser is very weak (a few pW). The frequency of the signal is fixed and extremely stable. The coherent receiver is used to amplify the signal and change the frequency. This is done using a series of phase-locked loops and a high performance quartz oscillator.
The meaning of the term maser has changed slightly since its introduction. Initially the acronym was universally given as "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” which described devices which emitted in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum.